Exeter has been successful in progressing through the first phase of a process to become a UNESCO City of Literature. Only four UK cities can gain endorsement from UNESCO’s UK Commission to join the Creative Cities Network and Exeter was one of these. The city’s application now goes into an international competitive process and we will hear the verdict in November 2019.

The bid, led by Exeter City Council, is a partnership between: Exeter City Council, Exeter Culture, The University of Exeter, Devon County Council, Libraries Unlimited, Literature Works, Exeter Cathedral and Exeter Canal and Quay Trust. Literature Works, the literature development agency for south-west England, wrote the bid on behalf of the steering group.

If the city is successful in its application it will enable Exeter to use the prestigious title of City of Literature and produce a four-year cultural programme of activity for the communities of Exeter and the region. The network of UNESCO’s Creative Cities will also enable Exeter to develop international partnerships and opportunities for the benefit of its communities and the cultural sector. Discussions and plans are already in place for lottery funding applications to support this. The bid has been nationally endorsed by Arts Council England, The British Council and MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw.


The vision for the programme is for Exeter and the wider region to be a destination for writers and a city of readers. The programme aims to engage a range of communities in the creation and appreciation of wide-ranging works, both existing and new, and develop a love of reading.

At the heart of the application is a major focus on how reading, stories and activities connected to storytelling can have an impact upon wellbeing. Exeter’s UNESCO City of Literature will draw on the power of literature and words to pursue a set of wellbeing goals [1] for Exeter, Devon and the surrounding region:

1. Starting well

We want all children in Devon to have the best start in life and the opportunity to thrive.There is a strong evidence base that reading can improve health and wellbeing [2]. Exeter will be a city of readers. Devon’s inspired, ground-breaking library service, Libraries Unlimited, will be at the heart of this

2. Ageing well

Supporting people to remain well and independent for as long as possible. Devon has an ageing population and the older population will increase significantly over the next 30 years. There are many unknown carers who may need support.

3. Creating together

Using literature and words to help combat loneliness. 20% of the older population are mildly lonely, 8-10% of the older population are intensely lonely and 57% of social care users do not have as much social contact as they would like. Our highest risk groups are lone pensioners, older carers, people over 75, the recently bereaved and older people in deprived areas.

4. Looking outward

Exeter has a great, internationally significant trading past. We will use this and other distinguishing characteristics to help shape an inclusive, forward-looking and ambitious focus founded on the city’s great heritage: looking both to the past and the future. For example, identifying former international trading partners and linking to the contemporary networks of European Literature Houses to open up routes to world literature and re-connect Exeter to the world’s greatest cities.

Exeter and literature

Sir Michael Morpurgo, endorsing the bid, describes literature in Exeter as ‘a vital part of a vibrant city with its roots in living literature’. Literary heritage continues to enrich through festivals, research, and new writing. Alongside Michael, best-selling authors linked to county and city are Hilary Mantel and University of Exeter alumna J K Rowling. Alice Oswald leads a strong poetry field bolstered by poets with a youth following, Chris White and Jack Dean.

Exeter also boasts The Exeter Book at Exeter Cathedral. The Exeter Book is one of the oldest and best-preserved collections of old English verse in the world, and is older than famous texts such as Beowulf. The University of Exeter also hosts the archives of works connected to famous writers such as William Golding, Ted Hughes, Agatha Christie, Daphne DuMaurier and Sir John Betjeman. The aim within the city’s bid for City of Literature is to use these amazing literary assets and make them relevant, accessible and engaging to people in new and exciting ways. They will also hopefully be inspiration for new work, activity and events to develop across the city and beyond.

UNESCO Creative Cities Network

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network is a project UNESCO launched in 2004 to promote cooperation among cities that recognized creativity as a major factor in their urban development. As of 2017, there are 180 cities from 72 countries in the network. There are seven different categories of creativity under which cities can apply to join: Craft & Folk Arts, Media Arts, Film, Design, Gastronomy, Literature and Music.

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation; it is a specialised agency of the United Nations based in Paris.

Image: Graham Fereday from the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab working on the digitisation of The Exeter Book. Photo by Gary Stringer.